Bay Area couple helps Kosovar family escape the war

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Behxhet Canhasi's family had five minutes to vacate its apartment in Kosovo, an armed Serb policeman told them in April.

Canhasi himself had already fled to America several months before, but his wife, three daughters and one son were left behind during the NATO bombings. When the policeman made his threat, they fled to the border and were split up along the way.

"I was spending all my day looking on TV to see if I could recognize some family members," Canhasi, 54, said by phone last week from Florida, where he is staying with a cousin. His family is there safely with him.

The Canhasis probably would not have made it to America at all without the help of Terra Linda residents Elias and Carroll Botvinick.

The Botvinicks had met Canhasi in 1981 when he came to study nuclear medicine with Elias Botvinick at UCSF. In 1987, the Botvinicks visited Canhasi in Kosovo, where he worked as the head of nuclear medicine at the University of Pristina.

Since then, the Botvinicks had kept in touch and watched Canhasi bear the brunt of increasing oppression at home. They urged him to leave the country, but he would not.

"All through the '90s, he kept saying 'I have property here. If I go I have nothing, I can't speak the language,'" said Carroll Botvinick, who works at the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal.

"It sounded like Jews in Germany before the war," she continued. "But who am I to direct his life? My frustration was I didn't see anything good coming from this."

The Botvinicks kept sending Canhasi letters he could use to ask for a visa. They also sent his family several thousands of dollars — not so much for food, but to bribe officials.

In the early 1990s, the Serb government banned all Albanian language schools and forbade doctors from speaking Albanian. Since Canhasi had patients who only spoke that one language, he disregarded the law and was soon fired.

Canhasi and his family went to Djakova, where Canhasi was born and his father owned some land. Canhasi taught medical classes secretly.

Last year, he was driving to class to deliver a test when he was pulled over by Serb police. They saw a list of students' names in his car and charged him with leading a cell of the Kosovo Liberation Army. They held him for 24 hours and tried to force a confession.

In October of last year, using a letter of reference provided by the Botvinicks, Canhasi acquired a visa from the U.S. Embassy. He knew that it would have been nearly impossible to arrange visas for his whole family, and he hoped to be able to bring them to America later.

The Botvinicks picked him up in San Francisco, where he stayed with them for six months. Canhasi applied for asylum, but found out he could only get visas for his wife and his minor children. His two older daughters could not come.

"Behxhet [pronounced Beh-zhet] got depressed," Botvinick said. "He couldn't call the country because he was not sure if the lines were secure."

He was about to bring his family to America when the war broke out. On one occasion a few weeks into the NATO bombing, Canhasi said his wife Erxane, 47, and son Andi, 10, were getting into a car when a Serb policeman ordered the vehicle to move. Andi jumped out to be with his mother. The Serb aimed his gun at Andi's head but refrained from firing after Andi cried and said he only wanted to be with his mother.

Canhasi's family made it to safety in Macedonia one by one. His daughter Enkelena, 23, went with friends across the border. Daughter Anduena, 22, said she was delivering medical aid to travelers, and so she was allowed to cross. Daughter Nora, 19, walked and got rides to the border.

During the bombing, Botvinick heard on the radio that the United States would take 20,000 refugees based on medical needs and family reunification. She told Canhasi, who informed officials of his situation.

Within three days, U.S. officials had located his family, which was scattered in different camps. All of them were then transported to Florida early this month to be with Canhasi.

"I was very happy everyone was OK, that they were alive," Canhasi said. "I saw picture on TV of Djakova. I didn't recognize my home town because of the destruction."

Canhasi plans to stay in America. He's struggling to find jobs for himself and his family.

Maybe one day, Canhasi said, he'll return to Kosovo — to visit. "I was never able to understand all this hate. As a doctor, I give so much to spare just one life; I can't understand how one person could just kill."

Does Canhasi compare his experience to the Holocaust? "I was watching a documentary about Anne Frank. It reminds me many times this is the same thing — to kill because of ethnicity and religion."

Last weekend, Canhasi took his family to the beach. They talked all day and looked at photos from home.

"We don't have many left. We look at pictures and we talk about friends and colleagues. I have so many memories. I hope I'll not die before peace will come."